Opinion: Biden’s plan for free public university tuition could help combat wealth inequality

Brynne Paiva, Editor-in-Chief

As a senior, wrapping up my final writing supplements to end a long college application journey, I am repeatedly faced with the question of “Why?” Universities across the country want to know: “Why us?” Why do I want to attend their school?

As I seek to answer this question, becoming infatuated with each school’s amazing opportunities for research, locations for internships, and impressive facilities, I am burdened by one core aspect of the “Why?” question that would be taboo to include in my essay, but may be the most important factor: the cost. 

Why pay thousands of dollars a year for a degree that cannot even ensure me a high-paying job? Why even consider applying to an expensive top college when the only feasible way to attend is to take on crippling student loan debt? Why, even at top public schools—UCs costing an average of $36,000 for in-state tuition, living, and expense fees before aid—is college so incredibly expensive?

This question is currently being debated in Washington D.C. as progressive lawmakers push for relief of federal student loan debt. Some of these lawmakers, like Rep. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez (D-NY), are pushing President-elect Joe Biden to sign an executive order to cancel student loan debt once he is in office, as she said on her Instagram story last month. Senator Elizabeth Warren tweeted about this on Nov. 12, writing that this would be “the single most effective executive action available for a massive economic stimulus.” 

How feasible this would be for Biden depends greatly on which party gains control of the Senate. This question still hangs in the balance as the Georgia Senate race remains undecided.

Many Republicans and Democrats alike believe that such relief would be unfair—both to graduates who may have already paid off their student loans by themselves and those who never attended college in the first place due to its high cost. However, alongside providing millions of Americans with the financial relief to recover from our COVID-19 damaged economy, an executive order to relieve any amount of student debt would be monumental federal recognition of the crippling cost of college tuition—recognition that is a necessary first step to combating the ever-rising costs of public universities.  

According to a Georgetown University study, tuition and fees at public four-year colleges and universities has grown 19 times faster than the median family income since 1980. Financial aid, too, is rarely enough to mitigate this cost as students are granted $8,793 per year for financial aid on average. This varies greatly, however, by student and school.

Yet, college has proven to be an incredibly beneficial investment for low-income students. According to a Pew Research study, for a child raised in poverty, a college education can provide a 90% chance that they will escape poverty. For shrinking the ever-growing wealth gap in this country, education may be one of the best investments. 

And Biden already has a plan. His plan would make four-year public institutions and private Historically Black Colleges and Universities free for students whose families earn less than $125,000 dollars a year, a majority of college students. This would especially help minority groups, whose median family incomes are consistently lower than the median family incomes of white families, thus closing the racial wealth gap. In a country where the overwhelming cost of college keeps rich students rich and poor students poor, Biden’s plan could be monumental in breaking this cycle. Additionally, it would mean more educated voters from a variety of backgrounds, more educated social media users from a variety of backgrounds, and greater racial representation in high-paying jobs, like politics for example. 

The plan would cost $49.6 billion in its first year, but, according to another Georgetown University study, the increased attainment, or number of students who graduate from university, would end up paying for itself. According to the study, the 10 years after the plan’s implementation would yield $371.4 billion in tax revenue and private after-tax earnings gains of $866.7 billion, as college graduates, on average, make more money and pay more in taxes. 

Beyond the cost, another conservative argument against the plan is that it will make colleges more selective, which would likely be true, at least based on studies of other countries like Finland who have made public universities free. If more students are able to afford college, more will apply, and because colleges can only afford to accept a certain number of students, the number of accepted students likely won’t adjust for the increase in applications. Though this may seem terrifying to high school seniors, including myself, these more selective institutions are better than the alternative: elitist institutions. If the single factor keeping students from applying—and possibly getting into—college is how much money their family makes, then Biden’s plan would only mean that the focus of college admissions shifts more towards merit rather than income.

What colleges see as merit, however, can still be bought—from paying for expensive SAT tutoring to secure a high score or just being able to attend a school that can afford to fund more impressive extracurriculars. In order for Biden’s plan to be truly effective, colleges must rethink their admissions process to account for disparities in opportunity due to financial situations. Redacting the SAT is a good first step which hopefully continues into future years, but colleges still must find other ways to look at privilege as a factor in college admissions in order for the decreased tuition of public colleges to reach its full potential as an executive order.

Living expenses of college students, too, is another limiting factor for college students, one which needs to be addressed soon after tuition to make the executive order truly effective. Whether this is done with increased funding for public housing or student living expenses being included as part of Biden’s plan to make public universities free, this must be a focus if we want to send more low-income students to college.

Democratic politicians’ pushes to relieve student loan debt could be extremely beneficial to millions of Americans, but without making public universities cheaper, student debt relief is only a temporary solution. For solving issues of poverty and inequality in America, free, or at least cheaper, public universities is a great first step.